A new study has harsh words for certain fast-food retailers that have failed to make good on promises made in connection with the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative.

Released in late August, the study, titled “How Television Fast-Food Marketing Aimed at Children Compares with Adult Advertisements,” found that companies such as Burger King emphasized movie tie-ins and toy giveaways in their advertising more than food, in contravention of the CFBAI pledge. Currently, 17 food and beverage companies have agreed to follow the industry’s self-regulatory guidelines, including the directive to focus advertising aimed at children on healthier foods and lifestyles instead of toys or promotions.

The study reviewed television advertisements airing between July 1, 2009, and June 30, 2010. Burger King accounted for 29 percent of the child-directed ads during that time frame, which ran on Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, Disney XD, and Nicktoons. Researchers compared ads for children’s meals with adult advertisements from the same companies to evaluate whether the self-regulatory guidelines were being followed.

The study cited the Children’s Advertising Review Unit guidelines, which provide that “Since children have difficulty distinguishing product from premium, advertising that contains a premium message should focus the child’s attention primarily on the product and make the premium message clearly secondary.”

According to the study, “little emphasis was placed on actually showing the food compared with adult advertisements from the same companies, and toy premiums and tie-ins were presented prominently in both the visual and audio elements of these advertisements. We conclude that these companies did not follow through with their self-regulatory promises during the study period.”

Researchers found giveaways or toy premiums present in 69 percent of child-directed ads, and movie tie-ins in 55 percent (versus just 14 percent of adult advertisements). In addition, the “audio script for children’s advertisements emphasized giveaways and movie tie-ins whereas adult advertisements emphasized food taste, price and portion size,” according to the study.

“When we first saw the ads, we were shocked,” Dr. James Sargent, a professor of pediatrics in Dartmouth College’s Geisel School of Medicine and one of the six researchers who conducted the study, told AdWeek. “It’s hard to tell with the kids ads what they are marketing; food was an afterthought.”

Images of food packaging were also presented in a majority of the ads reviewed (88 percent for child-directed as opposed to just 23 percent of advertisements geared toward adults), leading one of the study’s authors to conclude that the companies were more focused on creating brand association with children than selling food. “If the purpose is to advertise the food [to kids], that’s not what we saw,” Anna Adachi-Mejia, another study author and assistant professor at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College, told AdAge.

To read the study, click here.

Why it matters: In a statement, Burger King defended its advertising. “Burger King is committed to responsible marketing practices to children, and we disagree with the results of the study,” a spokesman for Burger King told AdAge. “We work closely with CARU and CFBAI to make sure that our advertising properly balances the depiction of premiums and our pledge compliant kids meals.” The fast-food retailer’s comments were echoed by Elaine Kolish, director of CFBAI, who said in a statement that fast-food companies have “honored their commitment” to the self-regulatory program. “Our independent monitoring shows that, as promised, [fast-food companies] have limited their child-directed advertising to meals meeting meaningful nutrition criteria. [They] also have made improvements in the kids meals they advertise to children compared to 2006, before CFBAI was launched.”